Carnivia Book One – Extract
Venice, January 4
The little boat slipped away from the quayside, its two-stroke outboard no more than a quiet splutter at the stern. Ricci, tending the throttle, steered carefully around the fishing boats and out-of-season gondolas that cluttered the tiny boatyard. He made this trip out to the lagoon every evening, ostensibly to check his crab pots. Few people knew that his excursions sometimes netted a more lucrative catch as well: packages tightly wrapped in blue plastic, attached by persons and vessels unseen to the buoys that marked each pot’s location.
As the boat left the island of Giudecca behind he lit a cigarette. “È sicuro,” he said quietly into the flame. It’s safe.
His passenger came up from the tiny cabin without replying. He was dressed for the weather – dark waterproofs, gloves, a woollen hat pulled low over his eyes. In his left hand he still held the metal case with which he’d boarded. A little larger than a briefcase, and oblong, it reminded Ricci of the cases musicians kept their instruments in. Except he was fairly sure that his passenger tonight was no musician.
An hour earlier he’d taken a call on his cellulare. The same voice that usually told him how many packages to look out for informed him that tonight he’d be carrying a passenger. It had been on Ricci’s lips to retort that there were plenty of water-taxis in Venice, and his fishing boat wasn’t one of them, but something made the comment die in his throat. In all the time he’d been getting orders from the voice, he’d never heard it sound frightened before. Not even when the instructions had been to take a weighted body-shaped package out to the furthest regions of the lagoon and heave it over the side, for the crabs to feast on.
To their left came the sound of splashing, shouts. Several wooden craft, powered by oars, were racing through the water towards them. Ricci reduced the engine, idling.
“What is it?” The first words his passenger had spoken. His Italian, Ricci noted, was heavily accented. An American.
“Don’t worry. It’s not for us. It’s for La Befana. They’re practising their racing.” As the boats neared one could see that they were filled with what looked like women, in huge frocks and bonnets: only as they passed did it become apparent that these were teams of rowers, dressed incongruously in female costumes. “They’ll be gone in a minute,” he added. Sure enough, the boats rounded a buoy and headed back for Venice, one narrowly ahead.
The passenger grunted. He’d ducked down as the rowers came in sight, clearly intent on not being seen. Now he stood at the prow with one hand on the rail, scanning the horizon as Ricci opened up the throttle.
It took an hour to reach the crab pots. There was nothing attached to any of the lines, nor had any boats come to meet them from the other side. It was dark now, but Ricci kept his lights turned off. In the distance, the humps of a few small islands broke the horizon line.
His companion spoke. “Which one’s Poveglia?”
Ricci pointed. “That one.”
Without another word Ricci set a course. There were some, he knew, who’d have refused, or asked for more money. Most of the fishermen gave the little island of Poveglia a very wide berth. But for exactly that reason it was a useful place for a small-time smuggler to be familiar with, and he often landed there at night to pick up cargoes too large to be tied to a buoy – crates of cigarettes or whisky, the occasional shivering Eastern European girl and her pimp. Even so, he rarely lingered longer than he had to.
Unconsciously Ricci crossed himself, no more aware of the gesture than he was of the tiny adjustments he was making to the outboard as he steered a complex course through the sandbanks and shallows that littered this part of the lagoon. Then came a stretch of open water, and he opened up the throttle. Freezing spray lashed their faces as they crashed from wave to wave, but the man in the prow seemed hardly to notice.
Eventually Ricci slowed. The island was just ahead of them now, silhouetted against the purple-black sky, the clock tower of the abandoned hospital piercing the trees. He saw a flickering dot of light amongst the ruins – candles, perhaps, in one of the rooms. So it was a rendezvous, after all. No one lived on Poveglia, not any more.
Kneeling, Ricci’s passenger unlatched the metal case. Ricci caught a glimpse of a barrel, a black rifle stock, a line of bullets, all packed neatly into their allotted spaces. But it was a night-sight, fat as a camera lens, that the man pulled out first. He raised it to his eye as he stood, steadying himself against the boat’s movement.
For a moment he remained looking in the direction of the lights. Then he gestured to Ricci to head towards the jetty, leaping impatiently but noiselessly onto the shore even before the boat touched land, the metal case still in his hand.
Later, Ricci would wonder if he’d heard any shots. But then he recalled the other tube he’d glimpsed in the case – a silencer, even longer and fatter than the night-sight. So it must have been his imagination.
His passenger was gone just fifteen minutes, and they rode back to Giudecca in silence.
The party in the dimly-lit Venetian bacaro had been going on for almost five hours, and the volume level was still rising. The good-looking young man who was trying to get off with Katerina Tapo wasn’t so much chatting her up as shouting her up: the two of them had to stand very close and bellow alternately into each other’s ears just to hear each other, which, while it certainly robbed their flirting of any subtlety, also meant she was left in little doubt of his intentions. Kat decided that was no bad thing. Only those who really fancied each other would persevere with small talk in such difficult conditions. For her part, she’d already made the decision that Eduardo – or was it Gesualdo? – would be coming back later to her tiny two-room apartment in Mestre.
Eduardo, or possibly Gesualdo, wanted to know what she did for a living. “I’m a travel agent,” she yelled back.
He nodded. “Cool. Get to travel much yourself?”
“A bit,” she shouted.
She felt her phone buzz against her thigh. It was set to ring, but such was the noise around them she hadn’t heard. Pulling it out, she saw she’d missed three calls from work. “Un momento,” she shouted into it. Indicating to her companion she’d be back in a minute, she struggled up the crowded steps of the bar into the open air.
Mother of Christ, it was cold. Around her a few hardy smokers were braving the chill: her own mouth barked steam almost as thick as their smoke as she turned back to the phone. “Si? Pronto?”
“There’s a body,” Francesco’s voice said. “You’re on it. I just spoke to Allocation.”
“Homicide?” She struggled to keep the excitement out of her voice.
“Could be. Whatever it is, it’s going to be a big one.”
Francesco didn’t answer her directly. “I’m texting the address. Near the Salute. You’ll meet Colonnello Piola at the scene. Good luck. And remember, you owe me for this.” He rang off.
She glanced at the screen. No address yet, but if it was near the church of Santa Maria della Salute she’d need to catch the vaporetto. Even so, she was probably twenty minutes away, and that was assuming she didn’t go home to change first, which she definitely ought to, given what she was wearing. Damn, she decided, there was no time for that. She’d do her coat up tight and hope Piola didn’t wonder too much at her bare legs or her party make-up. It was La Befana, after all, and the whole city was out celebrating.
At least she’d brought rubber boots as well as her heels – everyone had: the combination of winter tides, snow and a full moon had brought acqua alta to Venice, the intermittent floods that plagued them almost every year now. Twice a day the city was submerged by a tidal surge several feet deeper than Venice had been built to accommodate. Canals expanded over their pavements; St Mark’s Square – the lowest point of the city – became a saltwater lake, soupy with cigarette ends and pigeon droppings, and even those who tried to stick to the raised wooden walkways put out by the authorities sometimes found themselves having to splash.
She felt adrenalin sluicing her stomach. Ever since she’d been promoted to the detective division she’d been pressing to work a murder case. And now, with any luck, she had one. Colonel Piola wouldn’t have been assigned to this if it was just another drunken tourist falling into a canal. Hopefully, that meant a double stroke of luck: her first big investigation would be under the supervision of the senior detective she most admired.
She briefly considered going back into the bar to tell Eduardo/Gesualdo she had to go to work, and maybe get his phone number before she left. Then she decided against it. Travel agents, even busy ones, were rarely called to their offices at ten to midnight, especially on the night of La Befana. It would mean explaining why she didn’t tell casual pickups like him she was actually an officer of the Carabinieri, and generally soothing his wounded pride, and she really didn’t have time for that.
Besides, if this was a murder investigation, she was unlikely to have any time over the next couple of weeks to return his phone calls, let alone see him for sex. Eduardo was just going to have to get lucky with someone else.
Her phone pulsed again as Francesco texted her the address, and she felt her heart beat a little faster in response.
Detective-Colonel Aldo Piola stared down at the body. He badly wanted to break his five-day old New Year’s resolution and light a cigarette. Not that he could have smoked here in any case. Preservation of evidence came first.
“A cornajass?” he said wonderingly, using the Venetian criminal’s slang for ‘priest’.
Dr Hapadi, the forensic examiner, shrugged. “That’s what was called in. But there’s a bit more to this one. Want to take a closer look?”
Somewhat reluctantly, Piola stepped off the raised walkway into the foot-deep murk, splashing gingerly towards the circle of light emanating from Hapadi’s portable generator. The blue plastic wraparounds the doctor had offered him when he arrived at the scene were immediately flooded with icy seawater, despite being tied around his calves with elastic bands. Another pair of shoes ruined, he thought with an inward sigh. He wouldn’t have minded, but his wife and he had been celebrating La Befana with friends at Alle Testiere, one of Venice’s best restaurants, and as a consequence he was wearing his best new Bruno Maglis. As soon as he could, he jumped up onto the marble steps of the church, one level above the body, pausing to shake each foot dry as if he were stepping out of a bath. You never knew: perhaps they could be salvaged.
The body lay slumped across the steps, half-in and half-out of the water, almost as though the victim had been trying to crawl up out of the sea into the sanctuary of the church. That would be the effect of the tide, which was already receding a little, back towards the pavement that usually separated the church from the lagoon. There was no mistaking the black and gold vestments of a Catholic priest dressed for Mass, nor the two bullet holes in the back of the matted head that left purple-brown stains dripping onto the marble.
“Could this have happened here?” Piola asked.
Hapadi shook his head. “I doubt it. At a guess, the high water washed the body in from the lagoon. If it hadn’t been for the acqua alta, it’d be halfway to Croatia by now.”
If true, Piola reflected, the corpse was little different from the rest of the rubbish that got washed into the city. The seawater around him had a faint aroma of sewage: not all Venetian cess-pits were watertight, and some residents notoriously saw high water as a chance to save themselves the usual emptying fee. “What height was it tonight?”
“One forty, according to the pipes.” The electronic sirens that informed Venetians of impending acqua alta also warned them of its extent – ten centimetres above a metre for every note the sirens sounded.
He bent down to take a closer look. The priest, whoever he was, had been of slight build. It was tempting to turn him over, but Piola knew that to do so before the forensic team had finished photographing would be to incur their wrath.
“So,” he said thoughtfully. “He was shot somewhere to the east or south, say.”
“Possibly. But you’re wrong about one thing, at least.”
“Take a look at the shoes.”
Gingerly, Piola hooked a finger under the sodden cassock and lifted it away from the priest’s leg. The foot was small, almost dainty, and it was shod in what was unmistakeably a woman’s leather shoe.
“He’s a tranny?” he said, amazed.
“Not exactly.” Hapadi almost looked as if he were enjoying this. “OK, now the head.”
Piola had to crouch right down, his buttocks almost touching the eddying water, to do as Hapadi asked. The corpse’s eyes were open, the forehead resting against the step as if the priest had died in the very act of drinking from the sea. As Piola looked, a small wave washed over the chin into the open mouth before sucking away again, leaving it drooling.
Then Piola saw. The chin was without stubble, the lips too pink. “Mother of God,” he said, surprised. “It’s a woman.” Automatically, he crossed himself.
There was no doubt – the shaped eyebrow and trace of eyeliner around the lifeless eye, the feminine lashes; even, he now saw, the discreet earring half-hidden by a strand of matted hair. She was about forty, with a little middle-aged thickening of the shoulders, which was why he hadn’t realised immediately.
Recovering himself, he touched the sodden alb. “Pretty realistic, for fancy dress.”
“If it is fancy dress.”
Piola looked at the other man curiously. “Why do you say that?”
“What woman would dare to go out dressed as a priest in Italy?” Hapadi said rhetorically. “She wouldn’t get ten yards.” He shrugged. “Then again, maybe she didn’t. Get ten yards, I mean.”
Piola frowned. “Two in the back of the head? Seems a bit extreme.”
Piola turned. An attractive young woman, her face heavily made up, wearing a short black coat, galoshes, and apparently very little else, was hailing him from the wooden walkway.
“You can’t come through here,” he said automatically. “This is a crime scene.”
She dug an ID card out of her pocket and held it up. “Capitano Tapo, sir. I’ve been assigned to the case.”
“You’d better come across, then.”
She hesitated for only a moment, he noticed, before pulling off her boots and wading barefoot towards him. He caught a flash of red paint on her toenails as she put her foot into the murk.
“Last time I saw someone try that in Venice,” Hapadi said cheerfully, “they cut their feet to ribbons. Broken glass under the water.”
The capitano ignored him. “Any identification on him, sir?” she asked Piola.
“Not yet. And we were just remarking on the fact that our victim is not in fact a him.”
Tapo’s eyes darted warily to the body, but he noticed that she didn’t cross herself as he’d done. These youngsters didn’t always have the ingrained Catholicism he’d struggled so hard to shake off. “Could it be some stupid joke?” she said hesitantly. “It’s La Befana, after all.”
“Perhaps. But it should be the other way round really, shouldn’t it?” In Venice, where any excuse for dressing up was always seized on, the feast of La Befana – the witch who came to stay at Christmas and then wouldn’t leave until January – was celebrated with fancy dress; not least by the boatmen and manual workers, who dressed up in women’s clothing for the day.
Squatting down beside the body much as he’d done a few minutes earlier, Kat scrutinised it carefully. “This looks real, though,” she said thoughtfully. Gently, she tugged a chain out from under the robes. A carved wooden cross dangled from the end of it.
“Perhaps it’s not hers,” Piola said. “Anyway, first things first, Captain. Establish a perimeter, start a visitor log, and when the dottore here is finished with his photographs, make arrangements for the corpse to be removed to the mortuary. In the meantime I want screens and an evidence shelter – we don’t want the good citizens of Venice any more alarmed than absolutely necessary.” It went without saying that it would be the fact that the dead woman was defiling a priest’s robes that would cause the alarm, not just the fact that she’d been murdered.
“Of course, sir. Shall I call you when the body’s at the mortuary?”
“Call me?” Piola seemed surprised. “I’ll be going with it. Chain of evidence, Capitano. I was the first officer at the scene, so I stay with the corpse.”
If that was impressive – Kat’s last supervising officer had usually knocked off for the day not long after the end of his extended lunch break, telling her to ‘call with any developments’ while switching his phone off even before he’d reached the door – it was nothing compared to what happened when the police turned up, their launch idling over to where Hapadi was packing up his kit. Kat was blue with cold now, the freezing water eating into her very bones: when she saw the words ‘Polizia di Stato’ her first reaction was one of relief.
An officer stepped out of the boat, immaculately dressed for the occasion in police-blue fishing waders. “Sovrintendente Otalo,” he greeted them. “Many thanks, Colonel, we’ll take it from here.”
Piola barely glanced at him. “Actually, this one’s ours.”
Otalo shook his head. “It’s been decided at a higher level. We’ve got some spare capacity at the moment.”
I bet you have, Kat thought. She stayed quiet, waiting to see how Piola would handle this.
Visitors to Italy are often surprised to discover that there are several separate police forces, of which the largest are the Polizia di Stato, answering to the Interior Ministry, and the Carabinieri, answering to the Ministry of Defence. Effectively they operate in competition, right down to having two different emergency numbers; a system which the Italian government claims keeps both organisations on their toes, and which Italian citizens are aware is actually a recipe for muddle, corruption and bureaucratic incompetence. Even so, most people prefer to dial 112 for the Carabinieri, believing them marginally less inefficient than their civilian counterparts.
Piola did look at Otalo now, his glance one of barely concealed contempt. “Until my Generale di Divisione says I’m off this case, I’m on it,” he said. “Anyone who tries to tell me otherwise is obstructing an investigation, and may well get themselves arrested.”
The other man looked equally disdainful. “All right, all right. Keep your precious body, if it’s so important to you.” He shrugged. “I’ll get back to my nice warm station house.”
“If you wanted to be helpful, you could lend us your boat,” Piola suggested.
“Exactly,” the man agreed. “If I wanted to be helpful. Ciao, then.” He stepped back into the launch, saluting ironically as the boat reversed into the canal.
At about three in the morning it started to snow; fat, wet flakes as big as butterflies that melted as soon as they settled on the salty water. The snow turned to slush in Kat’s hair, chilling her still further. Glancing at Piola, she saw that his entire head glittered, from his scalp down to his stubble, as if decked in a carnival mask. Only on the corpse did the snow not melt, gradually covering the dead woman’s open eyes and forehead with a white, blank gesso.
Kat shivered yet again. Her first murder, and it was going to be a strange one, she could tell that already. A woman in a priest’s robes. A desecration, right here on the steps of Santa Maria of Health. You didn’t have to be standing in freezing salt water for that to send a chill right into your soul.